Not only did Jesus’ birth occur under a cloud of scandal, but it also was followed by the horror of genocide.
Some months–perhaps as long as two years–after Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, magi came from the East (personally, I think they may have been from Daniel’s school of magi in Babylon) to worship the Child, having seen His star from their own locale and clearly being aware of the prophecies concerning His coming. After all, they asked specifically concerning the whereabouts of Him who was born “King of the Jews.” (Mat 2.2) They worshiped Him when they found Him, so it seems they were also worshipers of the God of Israel. Though there are many theories about the convergence of planets and other astronomical phenomena that could explain the star that led the magi to Jesus’ house, this celestial event remains an anomaly. Could it not be that God once again placed in the sky a guiding light, just as He did for the Hebrews in the wilderness? Personally, I don’t crave a scientific explanation for such things. My God is big enough to supersede all the laws of nature He put in place at Creation. Indeed, there are many scientific reasons to believe it was not merely an astronomical event. The magi demonstrated at least an innocent curiosity about this star, and at most a fervent desire to worship the Son of God.
Herod the Great was the self-appointed king in Israel at the time and a puppet of the Romans. Though brilliant and astonishingly gifted, he was an intensely evil, vain and paranoid individual. He was an Edomite (descended from Abraham, but not from Isaac or Jacob) and despised by the Jews. In their eyes he was worse than Caesar. His suspicion consumed him, and any suggestion that a rival king might exist in Palestine was enough to make him wild with rage.
Herod’s entire reign was punctuated by vicious acts of political paranoia. Matthew tells us that when Herod heard about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the city of Jerusalem was troubled. (Mat 2.3) Residents were not upset because there might be a rival to Herod’s throne–they would have been all to happy to be rid of him. Jerusalem would have been justifiably fearful of his reaction to the news that another “King of the Jews” had been born, knowing his emotional volatility and unpredictable behaviour. He had killed his mother-in-law, his two sons, many distant relatives and others he suspected of aspiring to his throne. Eventually he even murdered Miriamne, his wife and the only woman he ever loved. So Jerusalem had reason to fear him, and his uncertainty about the exact place of Jesus’ birth made the entire region vulnerable to his fury.
Joseph and Mary made a desperate escape, warned by an angel of the Lord–presumably the same one who had announced Jesus’ conception to them–to flee to Egypt. They did so, possibly financing their trip with some of the treasure that had been given by the magi upon their arrival. They returned only after Herod’s death some years later. During his escape, under cover of darkness, I wonder if Joseph thought about how he would explain this to his family members. I suspect Mary’s heart broke at the thought that her own son’s birth caused other young mothers–perhaps hundreds of them in the area surrounding Bethlehem—to have their infant sons wrenched from their arms and killed before their eyes. And how would she and Joseph explain the sparing of Jesus’ life when they returned from Egypt?
Our romanticized notion of three magnificently turned-out kings arriving on white camels with an elegant entourage and having a nice little soiree with the Christ child and His parents is about as far from reality as it could be. A quest for the long-expected Messiah became a life-and-death event and required divine intervention on two counts and still ended in catastrophe for families scattered through the hills of Judea.
But this reality clashes with our jingle-bells perspective on the incarnation, so we prefer not to think about it.